Harmon-Smith-headshot-150x150

HARMON L. SMITH is professor emeritus of moral theology at the Divinity School, Duke University.

Please pray for me as I venture to speak in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All of us know that our national history was founded in rebellion against royalty and its sovereign authority, so it is no small thing to ask us to acknowledge any king. But today we cele-brate the feast of Christ the King and pledge again our allegiance to Jesus. Of course, we have other vestiges of royalty – and however much we have purged the language and imagery of royal-ty from both our vocabulary and our experience, we still have Kings. We have Burger King – and BB King – Martin Luther King, Jr. – the Lion King – the Scorpion King – Betty Jean King – Steph-en King – King James – Rodney King – Larry King – Carole King – Nat King Cole.   And we have the King himself, as we came to know him in the 1950s (thank you very much) – but Jesus in a size-48 white-sequined jumpsuit trying to recapture his days at Sun Records stretches credibility for even the most gullible among us.

In a culture that celebrates individual autonomy and materialism as its sine qua non, it’s not the name but the autocratic power of a king that we resist. Much of the violence and anger and anti-establishment sentiment in our nation today looks to me like a modern version of ‘no taxation without representation’. People don’t want to be on the periphery, marginalized. The ironic counterpoint is that many Americans eschew the notion of a ‘king’ because so many of us believe in the Yankee ethic. We can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We can take care of ourselves – we don’t need anybody else to look after our welfare. In some limited sense, to be sure, that maxim is true: there are some things we can look after without intervention from some-body else. But the Church teaches there is one place where ‘you-first-right-after-me’ does not work – and that is in our reconciliation with God and each other – where grace, not grabbing, is the operative word. Obedience to an authority above insular individualism is the way today’s collect puts it. “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule….”.

The designation of Jesus as King began this way. In his last hours he led his disciples to the Mount of Olives where he privately poured out his heart to his Father while his friends slept. Things then moved very quickly. Despite some variance in the chronology, a brief retelling of the account in the four gospels would go something like this. The mob arrived to arrest Jesus. Judas was with them to show where Jesus would be. The disciples resisted Jesus’ arrest – but despite their efforts Jesus was led away to the prompt start of a pretexted trial while Peter fol-lowed timidly behind the mob. They take him first to Annas, the former high priest of Judea – and then to Caiaphas, the current high priest who is said to have organized the plot to kill Jesus. Caiaphas subjects Jesus to further interrogation – “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” he asks. While Peter is outside denying him, Jesus doesn’t deny who he is but confirms it.

Jesus is then beaten and mocked by his captors before being brought at dawn to face the Sanhedrin, the council of the high priest, elders and scribes. They pronounce him guilty of blas-phemy but need to take him to Pilate because they do not have the authority to carry out a death sentence. So later in the morning Jesus is whisked over to Pilate and his second trial begins. When Pilate learns that Jesus is a Galilean, he sends him to Herod, the governor of Galilee, who mocks Jesus and sends him back to Pilate. Pilate by now is certain of Jesus’ innocence and at-tempts to release him. But his plan backfires and Barabbas, a revolutionary and murderer sen-tenced to death, goes free in Jesus’ place. At that point, nothing is going to get Jesus free – not even a stern warning from Pilate’s wife who had a frightening dream about Jesus’ innocence.

So Jesus is scourged, mocked, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Above his cross is placed this inscription – Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum. The Latin acronym is INRI, which in English is “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”. John says this was written in three languages – Aramaic, Latin, and Greek – so that everybody knew. And that, in brief, is the biblical story. It needed rehearsing for 2 reasons. The 1st is to remind us how Jesus’ royal primacy as King emerges from this ugly and horrible narrative of his passion and death; and the 2nd is to suggest that our acknowledgment of him as Lord and Savior is nowadays sometimes challenged by events very similar to those that caused his killing.

 

Some of us will think it a remarkable and brave thing we do today when we close the liturgical year with the Feast of Christ the King – and because I believe that teaching is a vital part of preaching, I want to offer a bit of backstory on that phrase, ‘Christ as King’. There is de-bate about the precise identity of Revelation’s author and NT scholars say that the two ‘Johns’ of our readings are very probably not the same person. This book is an apocalypse (an unveiling) that uses all the rich symbolism and imagery at John’s command to depict an epic cosmic strug-gle between the forces of good and evil that will come again-and-again. When the Church con-fronted Islam in the Middle Ages, the contest was between the Church and the world. In the 16th c. Protestant revolt, the trial was between Christian faith and corrupting forces within. In our time the Church struggles with self-centeredness and materialism. Proclaiming the future as a present reality, Revelation was controversial from the start. The church took nearly 400 years to decide that it should be included as the last book in the canon – and to this day Eastern Orthodox churches recognize it as part of the scripture but never read from it in their services. It is the only book in the Bible about which John Calvin did not write a commentary – Martin Luth-er wanted it excluded from the German New Testament because he thought it encouraged loonies and feather-heads – more recently a string of writers from George Bernard Shaw to D. H. Lawrence have condemned it as the ramblings of a drug addict – or as a dangerous psychotic dream.        The Emporer, Domitian, had decreed that he should be worshiped as lord and god. He used the Greek title Kurios (Lord) – set aside a special day that he called the ‘Lord’s day’ for venerating himself – and had his image portrayed on his coinage as Christ appears in the 1st chap-ter of John’s book, with 7 stars in his hand. For centuries it was believed that John wrote from exile and imprisonment, during systematic empire‑wide persecution of Christians, to tell readers what angels had told him must soon take place. But I think closer to the truth is the current view of NT scholars that this book was composed in the context of an internal conflict within the Asia Minor Christian community over whether it should engage in or withdraw from its pagan culture. To withdraw would impose very real penalties – so the vision of Revelation is apocalyptic hope for the faithful and exclusion of apostates who wanted to reach an accommodation with pagan society. Read in this setting, Revelation is a dense and bitter code-book in which the representa-tives of earthly power are portrayed as the enemies of God. They are called Babylon, the Beast, the Anti-christ – and Jesus is called ‘King of Kings’. That’s a counter-claim to the title Domitian assumed for himself – so John depicts Christ as ablaze with light and surrounded by frightening symbols of strength and dominion – two-edged swords, trumpets, crowns, and golden robes. But none of this is because early Christians were admirers of the pomp and ceremony of earthly mon-archy. In ascribing royalty to Jesus, John was being deliberately subversive – what we would call ‘counter-cultural’ – attacking, not exalting, the rule and power of worldly monarchs – and transferring their symbols to Christ.

In 1925, in response to the growing nationalism and secularism that preceded WWII, Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King. He had witnessed the rise of dictators who asserted authority over the Church and seen Christians seduced by these autocrats. He hoped this feast would secure the right of the Church to freedom and immunity from state domination; that it would oblige both leaders and nations to give respect to the Church; and that it would encourage Christians to gain strength and courage for their struggle by reminding them that Christ alone must reign supreme in our hearts and minds and wills and bodies. Now we are asked to think about that in our own time and place. Our Constitution says that we have freedom of religion not from religion, but Churches and Christian faith are publicly mocked and renounced. Whether we are still a nation ‘under God’ is debated in the highest ranks of our government. The Church’s mission is to convert the culture to Christianity, but secular ‘kings’ of various sorts increasingly appear to be converting the Church to culture.

John’s gospel had earlier made a similar point. To help us understand more fully why we should celebrate the royal primacy of Jesus, he takes us to the passion narrative where we are re-minded that the first and defining proclamation of Jesus as King was a sick joke nailed to his cross. When Pilate asks him “are you the King of the Jews?”, Jesus tells him plainly “My king-dom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fight-ing to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” – not from, not of this world. And that was when Pilate released Barrabas to appease the blood-thirsty crowd and they screamed, “Crucify him, we have no king but Caesar”.

So I ask you, do we have a king or do you sense distrust of any and every external autho-rity among us today? Every school-child learns the 2nd full sentence of the Declaration of Inde-pendence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all of us are created equal, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. Our nation was raised on the twin foundations of freedom and equali-ty – yet there is evidence all around us, especially in this season of campaigning for political of-fice, of cultural bondage to certain social and political inequities – together with corresponding resistance to the inequities that increasingly make us an economically two-tiered nation. Mater-ialism and self-interest have seduced so many of us that for too many the only real authority we think we have is our autonomous self. In a strongly individualistic culture, the notion of Christ as king is easily rejected. That’s the world you and I are in. But as our baptism makes clear, we are not of that world. So to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, I invite us to give ourselves away and confess again that Jesus alone is our King and Lord. We can do that by reaffirming the vows that all of us declared at our baptism – so would you shout-out with me – not an anemic but a robust I DO – in answer to those questions? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? I DO.   Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? I DO. Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? I DO. Thanks be to God. Amen.